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Harper Lee: 'Her novel has an impact on students like no other'

Following the announcement that the author Harper Lee has died, two English teachers - a husband and wife who named their children after characters in Lee's most-famous novel - explain why she will be missed in schools all over the world

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Following the announcement that the author Harper Lee has died, two English teachers - a husband and wife who named their children after characters in Lee's most-famous novel - explain why she will be missed in schools all over the world

"It's the novel that taught me to love to read"

Until I read To Kill a Mockingbird, I did not love to read.  I can still vividly recall my English teacher, Mr Dunstan, effortlessly breathing life into Harper Lee’s characters.  It wasn’t hard to imagine sitting in that hot Maycomb courthouse, nervously awaiting the verdict of Tom Robinson’s trial.  The sinking feeling in my stomach at the injustice.  The wonderment at Atticus’ altruism.  The bravery and tragedy of Boo Radley.

In some respects I have spent my entire career trying to capture for my own students the experience I had reading the novel.  Like the gifts that Boo Radley leaves in the tree for Scout and Jem, the novel opened my eyes to a mysterious world that I knew nothing about.  It was through Harper Lee I discovered Toni Morrison, Truman Capote and Maya Angelou.

So when as an NQT in 2002, I was putting up my first classroom display, the words I chose were from Scout Finch: “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”

My students have said that I am mildly obsessed with the novel, which is probably true.  Our youngest son is named after Atticus Finch, the lawyer whose character is a perfect template for the teaching of morality and integrity.  

Somehow, the mystery of Harper Lee’s own narrative gave the novel an even greater layer of intrigue. Telling students about her secretive and reclusive life – together with the novel’s autobiographical elements - seemed to spark an even greater sense of wonder about its production.  

Nigel Matthias is deputy head at Bay House School, Hampshire 

"The novel has an impact on students like no other"

My husband is more than mildly obsessed with this novel. When I was pregnant with our first child six years ago, his year 11 pupils used to pressgang me on his behalf to call the baby Atticus. 

I wasn’t as obsessed, or ready at that point for what felt like a daring choice for a baby name. When he agreed on my choice of Dylan for our first born, I was unaware at that time of his plan to shorten this to Dill...

It took me longer to fall in love with this novel, maybe because it was not taught to me at school. It wasn’t until last year when I had the opportunity to teach it for the first time to an incredibly thoughtful Year 10 group that I really fell in love with Harper Lee’s characters and the fictional world of Maycomb. 

The novel affected the children in my class in a way no other novel I have ever taught; Lee’s story drove them to feel outraged at the injustice and prejudice depicted in the stories of the residents of Maycomb, especially but not exclusively Tom Robinson. Their excitement at the news that there was to be a sequel published, the year they were studying, it was beautiful to see. 

Harper Lee, your wonderful novel has given me so many things: it brought my husband into teaching which brought him into my life; it gave us the names for our two sons (and our dog Scout!); as a teacher it has also given me the most enjoyable lessons of my career.

My GCSE class and I have together read and discussed and grown to hold To Kill a Mockingbird close to our hearts. In the last year we have reacted in anger to the decision to remove the novel from the curriculum – at the injustice of denying the experience of reading To Kill a Mockingbird to future school children – and then felt elation at the news of a sequel after it seemed impossible. 

And now after half term we will share our emotions and reactions to the news of the passing of such an important and influential writer.  

Aislynn Matthias is head of English at Bay House School, Hampshire 

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